Thursday, August 08, 2013

The Happiness Hypothesis

I just finished reading 'The Happiness Hypothesis' by Jonathan Haidt. Jonathan Haidt is a professor at New York University Stern School of Business. His field of specialization is positive psychology. This branch of psychology is a recent development in this area. For almost sixty years, psychologists developed therapy and medicine to treat various maladies of the human mind. But all their work was always focused on what is going wrong with the human mind. Recently, a lot of focus and research has been dedicated towards gaining insight into the positive aspects of the human mind, happiness being one of them.

We are always inspired by heroes. By stories of triumph over adversity. We are inspired by people who walk their own path. Most of our religious beliefs emerge from stories of single messiahs who chose to lead people on a different path. Haidt takes inspiration from ancient wisdom to make a point. He begins his book by borrowing a metaphor from Plato. Plato describes the mind as a wild elephant controlled by its trainer. Haidt uses this same metaphor to describe our unconscious mind (elephant) and conscious mind (trainer). Often the disharmony inside our mind is caused because the elephant does not agree with the trainer. When the elephant and trainer are in harmony, happiness comes naturally.

The world is becoming full of rich and unhappy people. But this is not a product of time. The author of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, a king in Jerusalem expresses sadness after he tries to get all kinds of pleasures under the Sun. He expresses it as "chasing after the wind". Happiness doesn't really reside on the other side of seeking success, planning success and achieving success. It is only truly found in going towards success. The pleasure of achieving goals can be remarkably fleeting. That is why it is also important to know and choose the things that make you happy. Then he quotes Shakespeare,
"Things won are done; joy's soul lies in the doing"

The part I enjoyed reading the most was Haidt's take on 'absolute freedom'. Watching people from different cultures interact in the 'melting pot' of university lives, I have often wondered about the different ways in which absolute freedom has the ability to tie you down. It is interesting to know that absolute moral freedom, which is devoid of social ties and obligations, actually leaves people feeling lonelier and more depressed. Our attachments and obligations to our spouses, our families and our societies actually make our lives happier. The lack of these kind of obligations even has a word. It is called 'anomie'.

Another interesting part in this book was how 'being in the zone' makes you happy. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, another famous positive psychology researcher, through his studies, proved that 'being completely immersed' in a task makes people happy. It makes us so happy that it is rated about chocolate and sex. It reminded me of the ancient Hindu concept of being 'one' with what you do.

Although all of this is interesting, it is also true that people are actually born with happy genes. Genetics influences our disposition far more than we realize. Happy people, according to Haidt are also the winners of this cortical lottery of good genetics. So people battling with depression need something more than an attitude transplant.